Twenty-first Annual General Meeting, Wednesday 18 June 2014
The objectives of the Society are “to advance public education and knowl- edge concerning the Republic of Yemen, its history, geography, economy and culture.” The BYS tries to steer a course that reflects the intense interest in the current political, security and economic concerns and the constant desire to illuminate Yemen’s historical, cultural and artistic contributions and diversity.
Huge expectations and hopes were raised by what was called the Arab Spring for the rapid transformation of Arab countries from autocracies to democracies inspired by the young people that went to “the squares” in vast numbers from late 2010. In the early optimistic days, all failed to recognise the enduring strength of the regimes largely created in the mid-20th century built around alliances embracing military, security and civil services held together by networks of patronage. The hopes of 2011 have been disap- pointed by the current realities: the civil war in Syria, the re-emergence, albeit reformed, of the previous Egyptian state, the exposure of the under- lying divisions in Libya that I saw as a PhD student when it had a king.
I am saying all this because Yemen – with Tunisia – may be one of the few places that might be transformed over time by the Arab Spring. It came close to civil war in 2011 when the regime and its networks fractured, allowing the opportunity for the international community led by the Gulf Cooperation Council to mediate a solution that led to the resignation of President Saleh, a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that was completed in January 2014, the restructuring of the military and the promise of substantial international aid.
The process has been led by Yemenis with the international community in support. The future of Yemen can only be determined by Yemenis. The NDC ended with some 1,800 recommendations which a Constitutional Drafting Committee is currently trying to turn into a new constitution. This will not be easy as the NDC could not decide on some key issues. It agreed that there should be a federal system but though the NDC concluded there should be six regions many object to how this decision was reached and insist Yemen should be a federation of two – the old north and south. The constitutional drafters also have to define what powers will be given to federal, regional, governorate and local authorities and how resources will be distributed. For example, one of the suggested regions is a new Hadramaut that will consist of the current governorate of that name plus Shabwa and Mahra and will have most of Yemen’s oil and gas resources.
New democratic structures will be set up but it will take much more than writing a constitution to eliminate the influence of the very powerful networks which remain in place and will seek to manipulate whatever system emerges unless there are robust safeguards. The moves to restruc- ture the military and security, which appear to be proceeding well, are essential to the dismantling of inherited networks.
These are major challenges that have to take place against a very difficult background:
• The emergence of al-Huthi from Sa‘ada is transforming the politics of the region north of Sana‘a in a way, which may have profound consequences for Yemen.
• Many in the south still want a single southern region, if not independence. The government is trying to deal with this by showing how southern grievances can be met and offering a range of other concessions. It hopes to mobilise the support of the many south Yemenis now living in the north and those in the south that accept that a wider federation is needed.
• The army launched a major offensive against AQAP in April and this is continuing. It will take time given the nature of Yemen’s terrain and the capacity of the military but it clearly shows that Yemen’s counter terrorist actions are led by Yemenis, not by outsiders.
There are then Yemen’s enduring problems of under development, poverty, food insecurity and the poor level of government services. Humanitarian organisations are campaigning to ensure that the UN programme to support Yemenis that need assistance is fully funded. Political transition requires that ordinary Yemenis see a tangible improvement in their lives.
The BYS welcomes the role that the British government is playing in the transition progress and in supporting Yemen’s economic and social development. Both Nicholas Hopton, now in Qatar, and Jane Marriott, the current ambassador, have helped lead the effort. It is good to see the Yemeni-British relationship thriving in a year which was marked by the 60th Anniversary of HM The Queen’s visit to Aden in April 1954.
One of our members, who would have been here tonight – Rashid Al-Kaf – was appointed Yemen’s Minister of Oil on Monday. We would like to congratulate him and wish him every success.
The highlight was on 17 February when we organised three events to mark the publication of our book “Why Yemen Matters” edited by Helen Lackner and itself based on the highly successful conference we put on with the London Middle East Institute at SOAS in 2013. The book has been well received. On 17 February, we arranged a seminar to discuss current polit- ical and economic issues, inaugurated the first BYS Annual Lecture and gave a reception. The lecture given by Amat Alalim Alsoswa, now head of the important Executive Bureau, was outstanding and made a great inaugural event.
The BYS is most grateful to the MBI Al Jaber Foundation and to Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber personally for their strong support for these events – which, with the 2013 conference, would not have been possible without their support. We also want to acknowledge the help given by Nexen Inc and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust and the partnership of the London Middle East Institute at SOAS and its staff.
Other events organised by us were:
• Dr Adel Aulaqi’s talk on “Remembering camels in Sheikh Othman 1946–1967”
• Professor Nora Colton’s lecture “The Economic Realities of the Yemen Conflict”
• Reception at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre to celebrate and honour Nouria Nagi on the same day as she received the OBE from HM The Queen. Thanks to Safa Mubgar for her support for that event.
• Thanos Petouris’s talk on “Soqotra: Life in the Arabian Periphery” held jointly with the Royal Society for Asian Affairs
• Talk by Fernando Carvajal: “Post Dialogue Yemen: Prospects for a Stronger Union or Expanded Fragmentation”.
• Talk by Jane Marriott on current events.
• Film show of Nawal al-Maghafi’s "The President’s Man and his Revolutionary Son".
There was a function at the House of Commons sponsored by Keith Vaz MP, who was born in Aden and chairs the British-Yemeni parliamentary group, launching his initiative to link Yemeni and British institutions so that they can assist each other.
The first BYS Committee meeting held outside London: we went to Liverpool where one of our committee members Tahir Qassim Ali MBE introduced us to the Lord Mayor and invited us to stay for the opening of the Annual Arab Arts Festival which he helps to organise. It features several Yemeni artists, not least a band from the Awdhali tribe of Abyan and Sheffield.
New books about Yemen
Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba by Marjorie Ransom.
The Last of the Lascars: Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012 by Dr Mohammad Seddon (history of Britain’s oldest Muslim Community).
Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire by Aaron Edwards.
Two of the authors, whose books are reviewed in this journal, will be talking to the Society about their books later this year.
BYS members in the news
Last month, the Yemeni ambassador organised a celebration when The Brain Trust, a UK organisation for the highly intelligent, presented its Avicenna Award to Dr Manahel Thabet, a Yemeni born in Taizz with two PhDs and a distinguished career – and she is only just into her 30s.
BYS members contributed to conferences, workshops and the media. We are organising with the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh a workshop to be held at Cambridge on 25-28 August on the Future of Yemen. Dr Salma Samar Damluji gave this year’s inaugural lecture on Hadrami mud brick building at the Ecole de Chaillot in Paris.
We hope to announce the programme for the rest of the year during the summer. Apart from Aaron Edwards and Muhammad Seddon, Lis Kendall from Pembroke College Oxford will give a talk about Youth activism in Mahra. Helen Lackner will be giving a lecture at SOAS as part of its Tuesday evening series in December.
Helen Lackner has proved a worthy successor to John Shipman as editor of the journal – and the 2013 issue was the first produced under her guidance. We are very grateful that she took on this position, which can be very demanding.
We have had another significant increase in membership by twenty-two new members – reflecting, we think, the greater level of activity of the BYS. Thanks to the support of Safa Mubgar, we have produced a new leaflet on the Society and will be revising the web site later this year.
It is with sadness that we note the death of two of our members:
• Mrs G. James
• Mr Nigel Groom (author of among other books Sheba Revealed). Several leading newspapers published obituaries of this remarkable man.
Patrick Seale was not a member of the Society but in November 1995 he lectured us on his “Recollections of Yemen in 1962”, one of the best (or most polished) ever delivered to the Society. He told me shortly before his death that he had prepared a manuscript on Yemeni-Saudi relations which he wanted to send me for comment. So we may hear more from him.
Yemen British Friendship Association
We enjoy the best of relations with our opposite number in Sana‘a, the Yemen British Friendship Association whose chair has just stepped down as Yemeni foreign minister. The BYS would like to send Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qirby our best wishes for the future and our thanks for the support he has given personally to the BYS.
Congratulations to Amr Sufian, who was awarded the BYS grant in 2013, on finishing his PhD on aspects of bee keeping. An article by him will appear in the journal later this year. We are pleased to announce that due to the high calibre of applications this year, we will be awarding two Academic grants to Joana Cook of King’s College London, and Marie- Louise Clausen of the University of Aarhus in Denmark.
The Committee wants to honour Dirham Abdo Saeed for his outstanding support and contribution to the BYS over many years by proposing that he is elected as Vice President to join Douglas Gordon, who is here, and Dr Abdullah Nasher, now based in Canada but continuing to take an active interest.
John Shipman stood down as editor last year but agreed to remain a member of the committee. I am delighted to see him here this evening. He now requests to retire from the committee but we are reluctant to lose his counsel and support. Whilst respecting his decision we want to offer him honorary membership of the committee. It will enable us and him to remain in touch and for him to be able attend meetings whenever he wishes and to see minutes and papers if he wants to comment on them. I am delighted that he has agreed. Otherwise all current members of the committee will stand for re-election – under the constitution there is no limit to the terms served by committee members though there are for honorary officers. The committee propose that the following be elected as new members:
Dr Robert Wilson. He was until recently the Political Counsellor at the British Embassy in Sana‘a and has long been an active supporter of the BYS
PeterWelby. He first got to know Yemen when he lived in Aden for eight months from 2007-8, working as a volunteer for Christ Church and the Ras Marbat clinic. After returning to the UK for a degree in Politics and Philosophy at York, he moved to Egypt where he studied Arabic for two years. He now works on issues around religion and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
We would be happy to co-opt one or two new members and if anyone is interested please let us know.
I want to thank Audrey Allfree, Helen Balkwill-Clark and John Mason for their work as secretary, events secretary and treasurer respectively.
Finally, I would like to thank our host HE Abdullah Al-Radhi, the Yemeni ambassador, for his hospitality and his constant support for our activities and his understanding and patience of the way we operate.